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Santa Rosa’s purchase of credits for manure cleanup to offset future pollution OK’d

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Regulators have signed off on an unusual watershed cleanup project that gives Santa Rosa credit for removing a potential source of pollution of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, credit the city can use to avoid stiff fines should its wastewater treatment plant pollute the troubled waterway in the future.

The effort to remove hundreds of tons of manure from a former dairy on the banks of Windsor Creek was largely completed last fall by a Kendall-Jackson winery executive who heads the investment group that converted most of the 177-acre property to vineyards.

In exchange for removing the manure, Hugh Reimers, chief operating officer of Jackson Family Wines, and his partners in Krasilsa Pacific Farms have agreed to sell the credits, or offsets, to the city for $330,000.

The city, in turn, plans to use the credits to sidestep fines should heavy rains force it to release highly treated but nutrient-rich wastewater from its huge treatment plant at the other end of the Laguna, which regulators say is one of the state’s most polluted waterways.

The project is the latest and most ambitious in the city’s “nutrient offset” program designed to help it comply with stringent water quality regulations that prohibit it from adding any new pollution to the Laguna until regulators better understand what ails it.

In the interim, regulators have agreed not to fine the city for its own future pollution if it can demonstrate that it has removed a comparable amount of pollution or potential pollution from other parts of the watershed. The concept is known as “no net loading,” meaning the city can’t on balance add more nutrients to the Laguna than it removes.

“Keeping this manure and associated nutrients out of the waterway is a good thing for the health of the Laguna and is one of the most cost-effective methods to provide these required offset credits,” said David Guhin, director of Santa Rosa’s water department.

Last week, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board agreed that the project at the former Ocean View Dairy on Mark West Station Road removed a total of 23,345 pounds of phosphorus, mostly from two huge holding ponds that held manure accumulated over several years of dairy operations.

Largely because of the drought and wastewater reuse projects like the Geysers recharge pipeline, the city hasn’t released a drop of treated wastewater into the Laguna. But it still wants to bank credits from the dairy and other smaller cleanup projects to avoid fines should discharges be needed.

Initially, Reimers had agreed to compost the manure offsite, but for “regulatory and logistical considerations,” his contractor spread 14,200 cubic yards of manure on 1,458 acres of vineyards around the county, most of them owned by Jackson Family Wines. This hiccup forced the city to resubmit the project again to regulators, who saw no problem with it.

At least one person has taken issue with it, however. Marvin Nunes, the longtime owner of Ocean View Dairy who sold off his herd and land under financial pressure in 2012, said he watched in amazement as Reimers’ contractors spread layer after layer of manure on former pasture land close to Windsor Creek.

“The amount of manure that they put on that little 5-acre area down there was astronomical,” Nunes said.

Numerous applications of manure were disked into the soil, and so much was added over such a short period of time and not long before significant rainfall that “there had to be runoff from that,” said Nunes, who farmed the property for 40 years.

Removing manure from existing holding ponds only to spread it in a manner that resulted in runoff struck him as the opposite of the project’s goal and “complete stupidity,” he said.

Reimers disagreed. He said only a small amount, perhaps 5 percent, was applied to the former Ocean View Dairy property, and was applied “long distances away from the creek.”

He said rains in September got a good cover growing on the area and flooding didn’t occur until December. The city’s report on the issue indicates that site visits showed no evidence of runoff into the creek.

The decision to apply the manure on land was made because of “constraints in Sonoma County when it comes to composting,” he said. Reimers declined to discuss the decision to apply the manure primarily to vineyards owned by Jackson Family Wines. He said cleaning up the ponds cost his investment group a significant amount of money. A total of 4.2 million gallons of manure was removed from the two ponds, according to the city’s estimate.

“The good news is, the manure is out of the ponds and the property is in pretty good shape,” Reimers said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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